Spread the Word to End the Word

Posters like this one, above, showing support and solidarity, hang throughout the campus at Bristow Middle School in Brentwood.

Bristow Middle School has nearly 1,150 students who believe they can change the world, and they are starting with a simple pledge – a pledge to stop saying something that has been widely said by adults and children for a long time. 

The word is “Retarded.”  

Teacher Gina Terry recently organized a door-decorating contest highlighting the  school’s Spread the Word to End the Word, campaign. Walking on campus, you saw dozens of  doors covered in colorful butcher paper with the words, ‘Let’s change’, ‘Stop the swearing’, ‘Be more caring’, ‘Respect: the new R-word’ and ‘Bristow can change the world.’ Most doors included a pledge that was signed by all of the students.

It is my hope that all of us can follow their example.

Mental retardation was the label that doctors previously used to describe people with significant intellectual impairment. ‘Retarded’ or ‘Retard’ is the slang people often use in its place. It is a common word used as a synonym for ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’ by people without disabilities.

The R-word is hurtful, and reinforces painful stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities as being less valued members of humanity.

On October 5, 2010, President Barack Obama signed Rosa’s Law, which removes the terms ‘mental retardation’ and ‘mentally retarded from federal health, education and labor policy and replaces them with an ‘individual with an intellectual disability’ and ‘intellectual disability.’ This change impacts over six million adults and children in the United States who are diagnosed with an intellectual disability. The law is in honor of Rosa Marcellino, a girl with Down syndrome, who was nine years old when it became law. Rosa and her family worked to have the words ‘mentally retarded’ officially removed from the health and education code of Maryland. She simply stated that she wasn’t allowed to use that kind of word at home and couldn’t understand why others could when describing her. 

Rosa’s fourteen-year-old brother Nick shared, “Even good kids use the word, not realizing that they’re talking about people like my sister.” He heard the R-word at school, at the mall and on the sports field regularly. His friends and their parents were using the word. It caused him pain. It was Nick who ultimately convinced the Maryland State Legislature to change the law, and in doing so, Nick changed the world.

This is not the first time we have needed to rethink the words we use to describe other people.  Words such as ‘idiot’, ‘feeble-minded’ and ‘moron’ were official labels used for people in court documents and diagnosis throughout the early 1900s. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the law changed to require the use of ‘mental retardation’ instead of labeling another person as an ‘idiot’.  In the 1960s,  these words were hailed as modern. Rosa’s law came fifty years later.

The Bristow School Video Productions class, led by teacher Heather Jeffrey, does morning video announcements that play in all of the school’s classrooms. Students with intellectual disabilities participate behind the scenes and as on-air talent in those productions. The production right before spring break closed with a three-minute montage of classroom after classroom of students pledging to not use the R-word. The pledge and call to change were widely shared on social media by students and staff.

Please join me in helping the students of Bristow change the world. I pledge and support the elimination of the derogatory use of the R-word from everyday speech and promote the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities.

You can pledge too, today, at http://www.r-word.org/.